A hundred years ago, it was racial equality that needed to be recognised, and we, as a society are getting better all the time. So, when we, as human beings, are all equal, and another century comes to pass, who will be next in line for equality? At first consideration, almost all changes can seem crazy. Many however, are warranted.
When considering the moral status of non human animals in comparison to human animals, it is important to note not only the distinctions, but the similarities between the two species, such as the basic sentience of non human animals, and the more complex self consciousness of human animals, but also the basic common ground, such as ability to suffer, irrespective of complexity. I do believe that non human animals deserve the same moral consideration as we afford our own species, but I also believe that it is extreme to be aiming for complete moral equality, as this is not existent with regards to any species. When assessing what it is that prevents the alignment of moral status between species, it is important to historically and scientifically assess this prevention and its basis, in order to gain guidance into how we then assess our attitudes and behaviour toward non human animals.
Australian philosopher Peter Singer establishes a clear distinction between sentience and self consciousness, a distinction which offers us a foundation for the consideration of the moral status of non human animals. Sentient beings are conscious beings that can feel pain, and as such, have a conscious interest in being treated a certain way (Singer, 1976 7). Human animals, whilst sharing this quality of consciousness and basic interest, are also self conscious, and self aware. Human beings can assess situations and consider decisions logically, can plan for the future, perceive consequences of decisions, and can experience complex emotions and thought (Singer, 1976). This difference is important to note, as it has often been this distinction which has led common opinion that non human animals do not deserve the same moral status as human animals, being less complicated and less superior beings. According to Aristotle, inferior beings need controlling, need masters, and are better off for having them (Aristotle, 1976 109). Immanuel Kant was opposed to the cruel treatment of animals, but only for the sake of the psychological wellbeing of men, believing that harsh dealings with animals ultimately had impact on human beings behaviour toward one another (Kant, 1976 122). Neither Aristotle nor Kant recognised the common ground which does exist between non human and human animals, which, as Jeremy Bentham points out, is a being’s ability to suffer (Singer, 1975 8). One may be a basic sentient being, whilst the other may be self conscious, but it is the similarity in the ability for both to feel pain, and have an active interest in avoiding it, which lends to a foundation of consideration for equality in moral status. In the end, the implication is that human, and non human animals are really no different from each other, and as such, non human animals should be afforded the same moral consideration as human animals afford each other.
When we recognise this seemingly simple implication between human, and non human animals, it becomes very difficult to ignore, and, as moral beings, we ought not to ignore it (Lotz), for doing so would be a disservice to our intelligence as self conscious beings. We must, as rational, self aware beings, acknowledge what it is that we share with non human animals, which is an intrinsic interest in not being hurt. If we acknowledge that non human animals have this interest, and we acknowledge that beings with interests need to be considered, then we have no choice but to take the prospect of equality in moral status seriously, and to, at the very least, consider our attitudes toward non human animals when we make daily decisions that involve their welfare.
I do believe that human beings should consider the moral status of non human animals. I do not however believe that the conclusion of these considerations should result in absolute equality. In order to refine one’s perspective, it is important to be able to morally justify a scenario in which animals are being used for human gain (Lotz). Animals are used in so many scenarios, such as entertainment (horse and greyhound racing), cosmetics testing, diet, fashion, production, science – to name a few. The only scenario that I feel is morally justifiable, is that of diet. Lions have always eaten lambs, and human beings have always eaten meat. Like it or not, most species do not share equality, evolutionarily or morally, and this is true of every species, unlike race, which is disrespect of others within ones’ own species. This lack of equality does come back to the basic concept of the food chain. Having said this, as self conscious human beings who are capable of complex thought and consideration, we do have a moral responsibility to consider what we are putting in our mouths, and how we approach meat. I do not believe that there is any moral justification for eating veal, killed fresh from the womb, over eating a regular steak, nor is there any justification for eating meat in every meal when it is not nutritionally required. Gourmet delicacy foods also fall into this category of excessive. Things such as shark fin soup, where sharks are brutally massacred and wasted, just for their fins would be a good example of this. Things like this need to be taken into consideration. When assessing these scenarios, it is important to note that perspectives will differ greatly, and no absolute conclusion can be reached. Peter Singer himself outlines that he is aware that there are many factors that he has not taken into account, and that arguments could be further refined and challenged, and even goes so far as deliberately omit the topic of actively killing, but his point never was to reach a full, concrete conclusion. The aim is to promote awareness and encourage, not a conclusion, but consideration of the moral status of non human animals (Singer, 1976 19).
We, as human animals, being self conscious and complex beings, are also very flawed beings. Holding a position of power does not dictate a reckless disregard for the welfare of other species, irrespective of whether it makes moral or even rational sense to do so. Just as is the case with other species, absolute equality is unlikely to be achieved, but nor does it need to be. It is a more aligned moral perspective which is required, a perspective which is perhaps more similar to the way human animals view each other. We have such a great amount of moral capacity when we consider our own society and the people within it, and this may be all that is required to establish the balance with regards to our outward moral perspective of non human animals (Singer, 1976 6).
In conclusion, moral equality between non human animals, and human animals, is something of a myth, but greater alignment of moral status is not impossible to achieve. The very factors that separate non human, and human animals, preventing absolute equality, are basic evolutionary factors, the change of which, may be unrealistic and excessive. More encouragement of careful consideration however, not only of our treatment of non human animals, but also our perspective regarding their moral status and worth as beings deserving of respect, will bring us closer to achieving, if not absolute moral equality, then some form of practical equality. This would be a progressive step in the right direction to achieving some enlightenment, in what is a long overdue issue, in urgent need of attention.
Aristotle. (1976) (c 350 BCE). “Animals and Slavery”. In Animal Rights and Human Obligations, T. Regan & P. Singer (eds.). Prentice Hall, New Jersey, pp. 109-110.
Kant, I. (1976). “Duties to Animals”. In Animal Rights and Human Obligations, T. Regan & P. Singer (eds.). Prentice Hall, New Jersey, pp. 122-123.
Lotz, Mianna; Lecture 17 for Unit PH110, Philosophy, Morality and Society; Department of Philosophy; (Lecture given at Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW)
Lotz, Mianna; Lecture 18 for Unit PH110, Philosophy, Morality and Society; Department of Philosophy; (Lecture given at Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW)
Singer, P. (1975) Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals. Random House, New York, pp. 1-27.